Unpacking Theory in Contested Waters – David Annand on Reorganizing Universities for the Information Age

I should have known David Annand’s 2007 article on reorganizing universities for the information age would be a challenging read based on the keywords:  Industrialization, Fordism, Luddites.  Annand, a professor at Athabasca University (home of cMOOC innovators George Siemens & Stephen Downes), wrote about the changes he saw necessary in the digital age of higher education.  His literature review, theoretical foundation and arguments ran in a direction I did not expect, calling into questions some of the beliefs I had built in my quest to define MOOC.  Finding resistance, I am going to dive deep into the writing to see where the differentiation is and why.  

The first sentence challenges a long-held belief on mine of educational methodology:

Peters (2004) noted that paced, cohort-based education continues to be the norm in both traditional and dual-mode universities, even with the advent of online education.

Defining Terms:  Peters is Otto Peters, who seems to be a seminal figure in distance education research; he has come up four times in my initial research (and this specific reference is my next reading).  I am reading paced to be longitudinal, where information (and/or learning) progresses along a timeline dictated by the instructor, and often builds off earlier information.  Cohort means learning happening in a group, and I have to believe this means any place where individuals congregate (which is very different from the cohort-based learning model where a group of people progress through the same classes at the same time); it is a definition of environment rather than pedagogy.  Traditional universities I read as bricks and mortar spaces, and dual-mode would be spaces that incorporate both face-to-face and online learning, or even synchronous and asynchronous class engagement (though I wonder if that is the case, as he qualifies online education at the end of the sentence).

My held beliefs:  I take most issue with the idea of existing higher ed practices focusing on a cohort model, choosing to define cohort learning as small groups of people who progress through a series of courses together.  Just being in a room with people does not constitute cohort learning, even if everyone progresses along the same syllabus at the same rate.  I see normative higher education being a place of individualized assessments from testing metrics (quizzes, exams, essays), rather than project-based or constructivist models.  While recent learning theory extolls the value of constructivism, it is not the norm as a classroom model.

The rest of the introduction breaks down his meaning and implications:  existing learning practices offer a two-way relationship between instructor and student.  Technology affords the ability to design courses online; it would remove the two-way connection.  The problem, as Annand sees it, is people cannot move at their own pace if they are tied into a peer-to-peer network.  Garrison mentioned that the big problem in distance ed was the impasse between the idea that learning is best when independent and self-directed versus when it is as part of a network of learners.  The last sentence in Annand’s intro (As a result, requirements of social interaction conflict with learner autonomy.) belies a theoretical framework based in self-directed, autonomous learning.  For Annand, learning cannot grow and prosper if it remains social in any nature.

This is interesting…learning theory kind of assumes social interaction.  Behaviorism is about stimulus, cognitive theory about interaction, constructivism about manipulation.  Annand is saying we are building learning theory from a faulty predisposition.  I don’t agree, as there is plenty of research saying we learn best from each other and in social/informal contexts, but it’s interesting.

As Annand gets into the body of the paper, he goes through the history of learning and why it is, as he calls it, a cohort model (it had to be unless it was correspondence…and it would be interesting to see how Annand would relate to correspondence work and some of the radio learning that happened in the 50s and 60s).  He cites research (his own) that says social constructivism might not be preferential to autonomous learning, and then provides access into his theoretical base:

To be efficacious, a particular educational theory needs to not only consider pedagogical benefits, but also balance these against learner preferences and perhaps most importantly for the future, relative cost.

Preferences are like attitudes and perceptions…just because we perceive something does not make it true or valid.  The cost issue is important, and one of the big debates in MOOC futures currently.

This quote comes from Terry Anderson, and seems to be the backbone of Annand’s argument:

Deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one of the three forms of interaction (student–teacher; student-student; student-content) is at a high level. The other two may be offered at minimal levels, or even eliminated, without degrading the educational experience. High levels of more than one of these three modes will likely provide a more satisfying educational experience, though these experiences may not be as cost or time effective as less interactive learning sequences.

So, if student’s have incredible ability to interact with content, that mitigates the loss of peer and instructor interaction.  This flies counter to modern learning theory, whether constructionist, constructivist, or cognitivist…but Annand is arguing that such theory is built on the faulty assumption that learning must happen in a group.  Personally, I believe context is imperative in learning, and context requires acknowledgement of environment, which Annand seems to disagree with wholly.

Annand then gets into a greater history of learning, and looks at how education did not change with the Industrial Revolution, eschewing technology for tradition.  This leads to the use of both Fordism and Luddites…he dismisses critics of the thought that industrialized education practices strip away meaning by saying they claim Fordism and stop listening.  He then gets into a discussion of how critics are akin to Luddites.  This is pointed and poignant language at detractors.

Annand makes great effort in the third section to link the need to reorganize ed to the rising cost and rising need.  Public education’s need for $$$ continues to grow, meaning either taxpayers will be stuck with the bill or users will have increasing costs.  On top of that, the global market requires access to quality education that currently does not exist.  A self-directed model of high-rate, low impact education could accommodate those concerns.  To Annand, demand for ed cannot be met by the current system.  Faculty involvement in a paced environment is expensive and limiting, so if that remains the model the center will not hold.  However, if interaction and community is key to best learning (and shouldn’t we define learning in this whole thing), this model seems like the lowest common denominator, and low-hanging fruit to pick.

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